Daniela Thomas' exquisitely painful Vazante, her feature debut as a director after several collaborations with Walter Salles, opens in muddy gloom, as the bare feet of chained black slaves shuffle through a jungle downpour. It's the 1820s. The slaves' master, gruff beardo Antonio (Adriano Carvalho), rides a horse, his eyes as wild in their conviction as John Brown's in a John Steuart Curry painting. Thomas' film studies, among other horrors of plantation life, this master's destructive zeal for purity, his conviction that this life he's built on mud and blood, on slave labor in Brazil's prohibitive Diamantina Mountains, can, with judicious cleaning of its surfaces, prove godly.
Upon discovering his wife's death, he promptly marries Beatriz, the deceased woman's 12-year-old sister (Luana Nastas). Beatriz is given to lassitude, to youthful longing. The only thing that shakes her from the brooding idyll of her days is the charge in the air between her and Virgilio (Vinicius Dos Anjos), the young son of one of the plantation's slaves. When they grin at each other, the film's oppressiveness lifts, for a breath. Eventually, Beatrize becomes pregnant. The final reels build with agonizing suspense to the revelation of Beatriz's baby's race.
Thomas takes her time teasing out this drama. The film is shot in a silvery black and white (by cinematographer Inti Briones): Here are great ridges and towering reeds, trains of livestock humping across the horizon. But the photography is not just beautiful. With Vazante, Thomas imagines, convincingly, with Faulknerian reach and density, the details of those lives, what being them might have felt like.